Toni Van Laarhoven became a teacher before she became a student.
Van Laarhoven and her twin sister, Traci, often accompanied their mother and their sister, Steffanie, to the parent-run school their sibling attended. Toni and Traci – only preschoolers then – often were asked to teach their sister’s classmates and to lead small-group activities.
Years later, Van Laarhoven would realize the roles were switched.
“My older sister, who has severe intellectual disabilities, is nonverbal and engages in some challenging behavior, is one of the coolest people you could ever meet – and is also one of my most influential teachers,” says NIU’s Presidential Teaching Professor for 2016.
“She has taught me that teaching-and-learning is a reciprocal process,” she adds, “and that it is critical to listen and learn from all people, regardless of their mode of communication.”
Her mother also inspired her work but in a different way.
Elaine Leslie Baker joined other parents in lobbying for educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities; their efforts resulted in the 1975 legislation known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act that guarantees a free, appropriate education for that population.
“From her, I learned the power of advocacy,” says Van Laarhoven, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Special and Early Education, “and to treat all people with respect and dignity.”
During her two decades at NIU – the two-time alumna joined the College of Education as in instructor in 1995 and became an assistant professor in 2001 – she has perpetuated the mission of her big sister and their late mother.
Project MY VOICE, which Van Laarhoven and Traci created and successfully directed from 2007 to 2011, continues to empower high school students with intellectual disabilities to participate in their own Individualized Education Programs via technology.
Last year, Van Laarhoven harnessed the potential of Google Glass to teach vocational skills to teens with special needs.
Weaving those projects and their capacity for experiential learning into her curriculum assures her that each next generation of special education teachers will treat their students in exactly the way they deserve.
“I think students recognize my passion for the field and my commitment to making sure they become the best special educators they can be,” she says. “They also recognize that as a family member of an individual with a disability, I am truly invested in their success and want nothing more for them than to change lives and become strong advocates for all of the students they encounter.”
Jennifer Horst, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Westmore Elementary School in suburban Lombard, confirms her former professor’s aspiration to “shape us as the powerful and efficacious educators she envisioned.”
“As someone who cares so deeply about the population she was training us to teach, the academic rigor that she challenged us with was understood as a sort of ‘future advocacy’ for individuals with disabilities,” Horst says. “There was no way she would let anything go partially mastered in her classes.”